Absinthe Makes The Heart Grow Fonder

I’m not sure how many people are familiar with absinthe. It’s not a very popular or common drink these days, especially since it was illegal to produce for most of the 20th century (the ban was lifted in recent years). For those of you who have never heard of it, I will explain.

Absinthe is a spirit made from the herbs anise, fennel and wormwood. It is usually green in color, altho there are clear versions. It has a bitter, black liquorice flavor due to the anise and fennel. It has a very high alcohol content, usually between 60% and 80%, and is diluted with water before drinking. The water is poured over a sugar cube to help combat the bitterness. It was originally created as a health elixir in Switzerland, but became very popular with the art and literary crowd in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was nicknamed “The Green Fairy” and was considered an inspirational muse of sorts. Absinthe was thought to cause hallucinations and was blamed for many cases of insanity, death and violence.

Being the big fan that I am of 19th and early 20th century literature, I was fairly familiar with it. I’ve read about it in books, seen it in period films, found information about it on the internet. A few years ago we were on vacation in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, and I saw it for sale in a liquor store. I very much wanted to try it, but it was expensive and not knowing if I would even like it, I didn’t want to risk spending the money. But, last weekend, we were out there for a weekend getaway, and at one of the restaurants we went to they had absinthe listed on their drink menu. As you can imagine I was thrilled. Not only as a fan of the time period, but as a writer, this is something I’ve waited years, decades even, to get a chance to try.

So the owner of the restaurant, who is an absinthe connoisseur, came over to our table with the glass, the sugar cube, the absinthe spoon (a slotted spoon designed to sit on the rim of the glass) and a small pitcher of ice water. She puts the spoon on the glass and the sugar cube on the spoon and shows me how to dribble the water very slowly over the sugar to dissolve it without using too much water and diluting the absinthe too much. She warned me never to use regular sugar cubes from the grocery store. They’re too hard and take too much water to dissolve. She advised going to a gourmet food store and getting softer sugar cubes imported from Africa. You can also find special “absinthe” sugar cubes at a specialty bar supply or liquor store.

It’s a very aromatic drink. As the water is mixing with it, the scent of the herbs are released and are very pleasant. The flavor is quite unique in comparison to other forms of alcohol. It still does retain some of its bitterness even with the sugar, it’s not sweet at all, but you can definitely taste that black liquorice flavor. Like most spirits with a high alcohol content, you feel the burn as it goes down.

Needless to say, I went to the liquor store and bought the bottle before we went home.

At Last

So, I finally have my home office set back up. I have it in my oldest son’s old bedroom now that he has moved out. It’s nice to have a space of my own again. All my books are out on their shelves for the first time in over a year. I forgot how many damn books I have. It took me almost twelve hours to sort them and organize them and put them on the shelves. But it was worth it. I was even able to part with alot of books that I know I will never read. They will go to the Salvation Army and hopefully find homes with people who will enjoy them.

I believe that personal space is very important to a person’s emotional well-being. I know that human beings are social animals that need frequent contact with other human beings, but time alone is important too. I spoze its more important for some people than others. I, for example, am happy being alone most of the time. I am perfectly content not seeing or talking to anyone one else for days at a time. My boyfriend, on the other hand, loves socializing and being the center of attention. Talking is like breathing to him. He would die if he stopped.

So for me, having personal space is very important. Someplace I can go and close the door when I can’t handle being in a room with other people anymore. Where all my stuff is, where no one else is allowed to go or touch things. And, hopefully, a place where I can focus on my writing. As Virginia Woolf once said, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction…” I have the room, now I just need the money. Unlike Woolf, I don’t have an inheritance.

Death Of The Bookstore?

I just finished reading a book about bookstores and booksellers and their history, called The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee. Near the end he talks about online book buying, thru such websites as Amazon, and whether or not it will bring about the demise of the physical bookstore.

I don’t think bookstores will every completely disappear. I do think that the discounts available thru websites and big bookstore chains, who can order their stock in bulk, will make it more difficult for independent bookstores to open or stay open. And then there are e-books, which small indie bookstores don’t even have the ability to sell at all. But I’ll be the first to admit that I do the majority of my book buying at a big chain bookstore, namely Barnes & Noble. I also order books online thru Barnes & Noble’s website. And I have an iPad with the Nook and iBooks apps.

I like going to bookstores tho. I don’t enjoy shopping online for books. Most of the experience of book shopping isn’t the actual purchase. There are many times when I go to a bookstore that I don’t even buy anything. I just enjoy being there. I like wandering the aisles, seeing what cover image or title or author name catches my eye. I like sitting down with a stack of books in a comfortable chair, or even on the floor, and flipping thru pages, pausing to read a paragraph or two here and there. I like the way the books smell as you rustle the paper. I like bookstores with inviting sitting areas, that make you want to relax and enjoy your coffee or tea or hot chocolate. I like bookstores that offers a place where your writing group or book club can gather.

I know Barnes & Noble is one of the big chain stores, which is considered the enemy to small, independent store owners. But when it comes to the B&N in Holyoke where I shop, I always think of it as my bookstore. I’ve been shopping at that one store for over fifteen years now. I’m just comfortable there. It’s like a second home to me. I also go to the Odyssey, which is an independent store, and Raven Used Books, but not very often because they are farther away. When I lived little farther east of here I used to love this used book store called The Book Bear. I recently got a brochure listing all the used books stores in Massachusetts. When I get a chance I want to check out the ones that are around here. I like used books. They have character to them.

Another thing that I think will change bookselling as we have known it is the changes going on in the publishing world. With the invention self publishing and print on demand, traditional publishing houses and bookstores are no longer the only path to being a published author. Writers can self publish their books and sell them thru their own websites. With e-books there is no physical book to put on a shelf. As far as e-books go, I can definitely say I do not like reading them as much as I like reading a real printed book. That said, I do believe that switching to electronic publications would have a large environmental impact, both in reducing paper waste and reducing the cutting of trees.

But, if every single book, magazine and newspaper were e-formated, there would no longer be a need for bookstores. A world without bookstores would be a sad world indeed.

Back To Basics

So I’m trying to get back to my writing roots. Pen and paper. No computer or laptop or tablet. I like the physical connection with the page. Its something you don’t get writing on a computer or even a typewriter. It’s a much more organic process when you write by hand. I usually try to avoid writing by hand. I get muscles spasms and cramps in my hands that make it painful and makes my handwriting almost illegible. But I really think it’s the only way I can really write successfully.

Obviously I’ll have to copy it into a computer afterwords for printing and submitting. But writing by computer is just too clinical of a process I guess. I edit too much as I’m writing. It’s too easy to see mistakes and to go back and fix them with a computer. All I do is pick out every little type-o, spelling error, punctuation mistake, missing or extra spaces, and obsess over word choices, and I just edit and edit and edit and get little writing done at all.

So to write by hand I, of course, need writing materials. The pen is non-negotiable. Pentel R.S.V.P. fine point pen with black ink. I’ve used that brand of pen for writing for almost 20 years now. I’ve tried dozens of other brands and styles and I’ve always gone back to that one. A comfortable pen is a writer’s most important tool. Source of paper hasn’t been as important. As long as it has lines to write on. I’ve used spiral bound notebooks, composition notebooks, loose leaf binders, legal pads, writing  journals (alas, no Moleskine). Right now I’m using steno pads. We have tons of them at work so I took one from the supply cabinet. I find them very convenient. Big enough to fit a good amount of writing on a page, small enough to fit in my purse or tote bag, and the added bonus is, since we use them at work, if my boss catches me writing in it she wont realize I’m not working. I don’t advocate slacking off at work, but if my clients are busy and my paperwork is done, why not make constructive use of my time. It beats gossiping or trying not to get caught playing Words With Friends like the rest of my co-workers.

So, so far I’ve filled four pages, which doesn’t sound like much, but considering how little I’ve been able to write lately, Im ecstatic. What I really need to work on tho, is getting some sort of order to my book. I havent been writing it in a linear order, which would be the logical way to do it, from start to finish. I’ve been writing it in scenes and its very scattered and I have no idea of what order the scenes go in. It’s just a hot mess right now.

The Almost Empty Nest

So I am down to one child left living at home. My 9 year old. I still have another child that’s only 15 but she lives with my ex husband. But as of April 27, my  third child is an adult. He moved out this past weekend to live with his cousin. A few days before that, my daughter, her boyfriend and their baby moved into their own apartment. And my oldest has been married and living in Texas with her husband and her children for several years now.

So the house has been very quiet and empty. Not that it’s a bad thing. Its kinda nice. We have already started putting plans for the empty rooms into action. The one my daughter was using was originally a dining room. Years ago we walled it off from the living room and hung a door in the doorway to the kitchen and used it as a bedroom, then an office for me and then a bedroom again, and back and forth a few times. This weekend we tore the wall down and took off the door and have returned it to a dining room again. We ate dinner in there Saturday night for the first time in about 5 or 6 years.

My son’s old bedroom I have claimed for my own. It is the smallest bedroom in the house and the only one located on the first floor. It’s too small to put in anything larger than a twin bed so really its too small for a proper guest room. And we don’t ever have guests overnight anyways. I used the room for my office once before when my son went to live with his father temporarily. It’s a much cozier and warmer room then the dining room, and I liked it better.

I’m looking forward to having a space of my own again. My boyfriend already moved my secretary and file cabinet and all my bookshelves in, now I just have to bring all my boxes of books up from the basement and unpack them. Which is no small task let me tall ya. I have alot of books. Oh, and my chair, which is buried in the storage room in the basement. It will be fun digging that out.

I’m hoping that now that I will have a place to go where I can shut the door and block out the noise and distractions of the house that maybe I can get back to some serious work on my book and my short stories. I always work better when I can be completely alone. Put on some music, light some incense or scented candles, pop open one of them bright blue Calypso Colada wine cooler I love so much (hey I never claimed to have any class) and I’ll be all set. Really get into the zone in a way I can’t when I’m trying to write in the living room, with people around and the tv on and all sorts of things competing for my attention.

I’m starting to get alot of anxiety surrounding my book. About not working on it. About it not being finished. About whether or not I’ll be able to get it published once it is finished. If I end up having to self publish how I’ll get it marketed so people will buy it. I’m almost 40 years old and I’ve done nothing yet as a professional writer. I just feel like the time is running out on me if I want a career as a writer. Especially with the health problems I have. I’m afraid I’m gonna die before I accomplish anything.

Insane In The Membrane

Do you have to be crazy to be a great writer? I don’t mean a successful writer. I mean a great writer. There are many successful writers who are certainly not great writers *coughtwilightcough*.

It just seems to me that alot of our most brilliant writers have had mental issues to battle. I was thinking about this the other day, after watching The Hours, a movie based on a book of the same name by Michael Cunningham, in which Nicole Kidman portrays Virginia Woolf.

We all know that Virginia Woolf suffered from mental illness. She had severe headaches, depression and eventually took her own life. Another brilliant writer, Ernest Hemingway, suffered from alcoholism and depression and he took his own life as well. Sylvia Plath was also plagued by mental illness and ultimately died by her own hand. And lets not forget those who were overcome by drug and alcohol addiction, Edgar Allan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack London and so many more.

The connection between writers, depression and suicide is so prevalent that the American Suicide Foundation organized a conference called “Wanting to Die: Suicide and American Literature.” And Kay Jamison, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, says writers are 10 to 20 times as likely as other people to suffer manic depression or depression, which leads to suicide more often than any other mental disorders.

There’s the old saying, that there’s a fine line between genius and insanity. But maybe they are one in the same. Maybe you need to have at least a little bit of insanity to remove that mental filter that often dams the creative flow. A writer can have no fear. No fear of offending people, of being censored, of going too far. Writers have been persecuted, exiled, committed, imprisoned, tortured and even executed for the words they have written. But the drive to put pen to paper overcomes even the threat of punishment and death. That seems almost a mental illness in itself.

I don’t consider myself a great writer (at least not yet hahaha), but I have dealt with mental health issues most of my life. Depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, low self-esteem, cutting, suicide attempts, substance abuse. I have also found that the harder I struggled with these issues, the more creative I became. The deeper I sank into depression and despair and the more I obsessed over my own death, the easier the words flowed from my pen. Back in the mid 90′s, during that period of time when I could write for days, hardly pausing to eat or sleep, I was in an almost manic suicidal state all the time. If it wasnt for writing I don’t think I would have survived it.

Is it possible to be creative and well-adjusted?

A Date With Monet

Today I’m going to stray away from my usual topic of books and writing to talk about art. This weekend my boyfriend and I went to the D’Amour Museum of Fine Art in downtown Springfield for their Old Masters to Monet exhibit, a special display of fifty French paintings on loan from the Wadsworth Atheneum. This is the last week before it closes and I’ve been dying to see it so we finally made plans to go.

First I just want to say, the paintings were incredible.

Second, there is no place to good for annoying people to be found.

We’ll start with the first point. The paintings. They dated from the mid 17th to the early 20th century. There were fifty of them but photographing was forbidden, so unfortunately I can’t recall every single one of them, as much as I would love to. Now, I know that to those of you who live in large cities, seeing art of this caliber is probly commonplace, but in my neck of the woods, it is somewhat of a rarity, and this is the first time in my life I have had the pleasure of seeing such a display. Let me also clarify that I am no art expert. I like art, there are certain artists I like more than others, but I don’t claim to know anything about style or technique or biographical information about the artists themselves. I do know that the two forms of art I tend to prefer are called Impressionist and Surrealist.

I was very excited about seeing the Impressionist art that I knew was part of the exhibit. I absolutely love Monet, and one of my favorites, The Beach at Trouville, was part of the exhibit. It was just such an experience, to be able to get right up close, and see each individual brush stroke, and to know that Monet applied the paint to that canvas with his own hand. The way he painted it captures the atmosphere so perfectly, you can practically feel the sea breeze blowing off the canvas. I was completely mesmerized. My boyfriend had to physically drag me away from it when it was time to leave.

The Beach at Trouville by Claude Monet. This is only a photo of the print I bought at the gift shop. My cell phone camera sucks and has no flash so I aplogize for the poor quality.

They had many more beautiful works of art as well. Renoir’s painting of Monet at work in their garden, one of Degas’ ballerinas, one of Monet’s waterlilies, as well as works by Manet, Sisley, Pissarro and Cezanne. And of course no collection of masterpieces would be complete without Van Gogh’s Self Portrait.

There was alot of paintings by earlier artists whose names were vaguely familiar, who I don’t know that much about, but who truly were masters of their art. The workmanship was so exquisite that some of them almost looked like photographs. And the details were insane, every inch of canvas had something to draw the eye, whether it was the texture of a set of drapes in the back ground, or the tassels on the edge of a tablecloth, nothing was too small or unimportant to have anything less than the most minute attention to detail.

Being in the presence of such beauty was an experience I can only describe as spiritual.

So lets move on to my second point. Annoying people.

YOU DONT LET YOUR KIDS RUN WILD IN A ROOM FULL OF PRICELESS ARTWORK!!!!!! Who brings little kids to an art exhibit anyways?? I mean, unless your child is some sort of genius art prodigy, they aren’t going to give a flying rats ass about seeing a bunch of old paintings. Get a babysitter or stay home. That’s the way it works when you’re a parent. One of the kids was sliding along the wall around the room, and his head was actually bumping against the bottoms of the frames. I was waiting for one of the paintings to go crashing to the floor. Not to mention that if you were standing close to the wall, examining a painting up close, he would squeeze in between you and the wall, forcing you to step back to avoid being knocked off balance and possibly fall against the painting. And I wont even go into the loud echoing voices. Their parents were ignoring them so skillfully that I wasnt even sure who, of all the people in the room, they were.

But all in all it was an excellent day.

Midnight In Paris

Was there a golden age for artists and writers? Much like Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris, I have a highly romanticized idea of 1920′s Paris as a glamorous paradise full of writers and painters and musicians and dancers, gathering in cafes and parlors and clubs, drinking and dancing  and creating from dusk til dawn. I feel like if I could somehow slip back in time and space to that era, I could tap into that same bottomless creative well they all seemed to have access to, and create literary masterpieces.

But I know that in reality it was a time of poor hygiene, little indoor plumbing and electricity, writing by hand with messy ink bottles, where diseases like tuberculosis and syphilis ran rampant thru a population that was promiscuous, addicted to opium and morphine, drank too much, smoked too much, ate poorly, slept little and lived in damp, drafty rooms with little or no heat. Many of them died from illness, substance abuse or suicide far too young.

There was no magic font of creativity that bestowed creative super powers on the people who lived there. There were just alot of already talented people who happened to congregate in a place where they could escape prohibition and censorship.

Even with that logical knowledge, I cant help but sigh nostalgically.

But I would definitely recommend Midnight in Paris if you like Woody Allen movies, or Owen Wilson, or the 1920′s Paris art scene. We watched it last night and it was great. Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway really stole the show. He was like an Old Spice commercial. And Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali was hilarious.

Another movie I like, set in that era in Paris, is Henry and June, about writers Anais Nin and Henry Miller and Henry’s wife June. Taking place during the time that Miller was writing Tropic of Cancer, it centers around his affair with Nin and how it effected their writing, their lives and their marriages. It is rated NC-17 due to its sexuality so be warned if your sensitive to that sort of thing.

And Hemingway’s book, A Moveable Feast! I thought it was endlessly fascinating to read about the way he and his fellow writers and artists lived during that time. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough!

So was it a golden age? To us, looking back from our own time, it may seem so. But an age never seems golden when its the present, only when it becomes the past.

Busy Weekend

I just wanted to wish everybody a Happy Easter or Passover.

No blog this weekend, too much to do between getting the house ready and cooking for Easter dinner and preparing for the birth of my third grandchild. My daughter is scheduled for a c-section at 9:30 tomorrow morning. I can’t wait!